An “architectural folly” this is how couturier and patron of the arts Pierre Cardin describes the bubble house, also known as the “Palais Bulles”, a futuristic structure originally designed by architect Antti Lovag for industrialist Pierre Bernard. After the latter died, Cardin became the owner of this unique place, turning it into a living gallery and a place for his own private events.
The Palais Bulles (Assouline), a recently published volume by Jean-Pascal Hesse, Cardin's director of communications and close collaborator, chronicles the history of the bubble house and of the architect who designed it.
Born in 1920 from a Russian father and a Finnish mother, Lovag lived a rather rocambolesque life during World War II. As the reconstruction and town planning started at the end of the conflict, Lovag immediately felt he was against the habitations à loyer modéré (subsidized housing) and began exploring and experimenting with new ideas such as infinity pools, movable spiral staircases for internal use and open kitchens and dining areas. In the meantime, he also dreamt about round, soft, undulating, caressing and smooth surfaces with no walls creating unnecessary physical boundaries.
In the '60s Lovag started working on a project he called the Maison Evolutive made from a prefabricated phenolic foam shell. Then the architect experimented with light, installing his first skydome - that is a ceiling incorporating a glazed dome - in a house he was renovating for Charles Boyer. Around the same time he began collaborating with Jacques Couëlle, who strongly supported organic architecture.
Lovag defined himself as a habitologue, a practitioner of habitology, and soon focused his research on the creation of dwellings designed around the inhabitants living in them with protective structures characterised by round and gentle silhouettes and with no straight lines or aggressive angles.
The architect finally had his big break when he got the chance of working on a few projects for Pierre Bernard, an industrialist and patron of the arts who was fascinated by the concept of “living space”.
Between 1977 and 1984 Lovag focused on his most ambitious project for Bernard, a 400 square metres house in Théoule-sur-Mer, beneath the foothills of the Estérel massif, looking out over the bay towards Cannes, that was to become the bubble house.
Moving from Inuit igloos and inspired by early prehistoric dwellings carved out of spherical shapes, and combining these forms with his hypermodern views, Lovag came up with a visionary project often conceived by the media as a mix of futuristic architectural ideas borrowed from Jules Verne and Star Wars.
The first version of the maison bulles made in concrete and poyurethane foam sheathed in fibreglass (vital note for architects and designers: this is an earthquake-proof structure) included an infinity pool with a palm grove and a vast living room communicating with the kitchen.
Light entered through skydomes, plate-glass windows and porthole-like oculi (a reminder of Lovag's naval college studies) cut into the curved roof. The original project then extended to include wider living areas and further suites plus an eating module locked inside a bubble that swung open to create an outdoor space overlooking the pool and numerous waterfalls as water, a symbol of calmness and tranquillity, was considered a key element by Lovag.
The volume includes fascinating cross-section drawings, beautiful pictures of the house, but also images showing the early construction phases when the bubbles were just metal structures. Some bubbles with their curved windows look like gigantic space helmets gazing at the horizon, others form bulbous alien or mysterious organic forms. Looking at some of the pictures of the spherical cells piled up one upon the other yet perfectly merging with the landscape, readers may think they are looking at a sci-fi film set, a flying saucer or a futuristic space station on Mars.
Pierre Cardin loved the house and hoped to get into a partnership with Bernard to market Lovag's dwellings, but his project didn't get off the ground for quite a while, even though he remained keenly interested in the work of the architect. Seduced by Lovag's bubble house as it symbolised for him the body of a woman, a welcoming womb, but also the most perfect shape since it was made out of circles and circles are infinite, the couturier eventually acquired the place after Bernard passed away, adding new parts and enlargements to this unique place.
The house, connected through a series of interior and exterior passages, was furnished with Lovag's wood and metal furniture, including built-in tables, undulating bookcases and circular beds; some rooms also featured design pieces by Pierre Paulin, Claude Prévost, Rodrigo Basilicati, Serge Manzon, Alberto Posselli and Gae Aulenti.
The book also looks at the connections between the building and Cardin's fashion designs: the couturier was often inspired in his work by round shapes (remember his 1954 "Bubble" dress) including the moon, the cosmos or satellites, and some images of futuristic garments such as a plexiglass space helmet and his futuristic dresses in PVC are juxtaposed in the book to pictures of the building.
The story of the Palais Bulles is so far a happy one: the French Ministry of Culture listed it as a historical monument and this structure extending over a 1,200 square metre space, is now a living art gallery that changes continuously. While the Palais Bulles features indeed pieces by famous artists such as Picasso and Lucio Fontana, the place is mainly conceived by Cardin as an artistic foundation for young talent.
What happened to Lovag? He still lives in his prototype dwelling in Vence, a three-room bubble house including kitchen/living room, bedroom and bathroom, and, if you admire his work, you'll definitely approve of his choice and fall in love with this book.
A final note: if you want to know more about futuristic structures, watch Great Expectations (2007) directed by Jesper Wachtmeister. The documentary is scheduled to be screened on Monday 5th November (6.30 p.m.) at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture (1218 Arch St, Philadelphia) in a double bill with Kochuu (2003, about modern Japanese architecture, by the same director) as part of the "Architecture in Film" series.
Great Expectations focuses on visionary projects that challenged traditional architecture by Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, Moshe Safdie, Paolo Soleri, Jacque Fresco, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier and, obviously, Antti Lovag, and features very inspiring images and interviews.
All photographs/spreads courtesy of Assouline
Image 2: The terrace of one of the infinity pools, Louis-Philippe Breydel
Image 3: At night, light from the various portholes is reflected in the pool, Antti Lovag Archives
Image 4: Night view of the Bay of Cannes, Louis-Philippe Breydel
Image 5: Window detail, The Palais Bulles, Louis-Philippe Breydel
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